By Todd Ceisner
Three years ago, Austin Felix was the wide-eyed college kid getting a taste of the bright lights and big stage of professional bass fishing.
The former FLW College Fishing national champion from the University of Minnesota will never forget his first Forrest Wood Cup experience – he finished a distant 36th – but this year he’s back with a different agenda. He has two full seasons on the FLW Tour under his belt now and he’s heading back to Lake Murray with a business-like approach that he hopes will result in a much better result this time around.
“South Carolina has a special place in my heart,” Felix said last week while practicing for the James River Bassmaster Northern Open. “I won the college deal at Lake Keowee and then fished the (2014) Cup at Murray. Now, I’ve qualified for the Cup through the Tour and I have a lot of history there already.
“As far as going back there, I don’t know if it’ll help. I’ve fished a Cup already so I know what I’m getting into as far as how things lay out and what to expect.”
And now he can narrow his focus more to the fishing aspect rather than the hoopla surrounding the event. He said the four days of official practice might be a bit much for this time of year, but he said it gives everyone another opportunity to locate areas where fish are sitting, especially in the early morning.
“It’s a big lake and having spent as much time as I did there a few years ago, I have an idea of what works and how the lake lays out,” Felix said. “I went there for four or five days of pre-practice and ran a bunch of history spots. Some worked, some didn’t. I still have all my stuff from 2014 like brush piles, brushed in docks and herring places.
“The other thing I learned in 2014 was I spent too much time on the herring bite, too much time late in the day trying to chase it as it died.”
He’s coming off a season in which he finished 24th in FLW Tour points and cashed four checks, including a 7th-place finish at the Mississippi River. He’s settling into life as a pro angler and hopes to build his profile even more this week.
Michael Neal has tried to forget how the 2014 Cup at Murray played out for him.
“At this point, I’m really happy,” he said. “It’s not as glamorous as you think it is. It’s a lot more expensive than you think it is. I’m still fishing each tournament to pay my way and luckily I did well enough this year that I should be able to fish again next year. It’s a ton of driving, but once you get used to that it’s okay. I’ve put 4,000 miles on my truck in the last few weeks, but it’s still worth it, for sure.”
Neal Has Learned Plenty Since ’14 Cup Bomb
Michael Neal would rather reminisce about his Cup experience last year than his last Cup experience at Lake Murray in 2014. That’s understandable since he finished 2nd a year ago at Lake Wheeler behind John Cox and was 43rd out of 45 competitors at Murray in ’14 after weighing in just two fish.
He remembers getting his hopes up at Murray based on his first day of practice, but what he found fizzed out as the skies cleared and temperatures soared.
“I had 18 pounds and thought I was fixing to do really well,” he recalled. “It was cool and windy and cloudy, but then it got hotter and hotter. By the last day of practice, I knew what was about to happen, but I didn’t change.”
This year, he’ll know better how to adjust should the need arise. He spent a few days at the lake prior to it going off limits.
“I don’t know if it’ll be different, but I’m not getting hung up on one thing from three years ago,” he added. “I was completely stuck on the herring deal and if you look back, there weren’t many guys in the top 10 who were on that.”
Since the 2014 Cup, he has collected seven top-10 finishes in Tour events, including a pair of runner-up showings. That alone, he said, will allow him to better handle the intensity of his fifth career Cup.
Brandon Cobb has made strides in his recovery from a broken bone in his left foot earlier this season.
“It’s the same tournament with the same pressure,” he said. “You just have to fish through it all. After last year, I feel like I can deal with the added pressure of it being the championship.”
Cobb Slowly Getting Back on His Feet
Just about three weeks ago, Brandon Cobb received clearance from doctors to resume walking on his left foot. It didn’t go well initially.
“For about a week, it was impossible to take a step,” he said. “Now, I can walk without a crutch and fishing is helping a little bit. I can’t stand like I normally would, but I only use the butt seat instead of the Bill Dance chair.”
Cobb suffered the injury prior to practice at the Mississippi River FLW Tour back in May. He hopped down some stairs at the hotel where he was staying and landed awkwardly.
“I’m not sure if I rolled my ankle, but I fractured the side of my heel bone,” he said. “All of your weight goes there so that’s why it takes a while to heal.”
Cobb managed to compete at the Mississippi River, where he finished 43rd and followed it up with a 9th-place showing at the Potomac River. In both events, his left ankle was immobilized and he had to compete while sitting down.
“It definitely took some getting used to,” he added. “The biggest problem was I never thought about how much you can’t see when you’re sitting down like grass lines and other stuff.”
At the Cup this week, he’ll use the butt seat to lean against, but he’s looking forward to getting back to normal on the water.
“I can walk from the driver’s seat to the trolling motor now, which improves my efficiency,” he joked. “I had to crawl on my knees at the Potomac River and I wound up with carpet burn. (At the Cup), I think I’ll be able to walk across stage without a crutch.”
He competed in five Tour events as a rookie in 2014 and missed qualifying for the Cup. He’s anxious to compete in his home state this week.
“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “I feel like I’ve wasted my time, though, because I haven’t fished there over the last four or five years. I just haven’t been there much.
“I’m not consider a super local, but the only thing that will be different is bunch of my friends are planning to come to the lake so that could make for more pressure if they’re on the lake watching me.”
Watson Fished Differently With Cup Made
James Watson said he’s put considerable effort into wiping the first two events of this season from his memory banks. That’s probably best considering he finished dead last (163rd) at the season opener at Lake Guntersville, where he failed to weigh in a keeper, and only finished slightly higher (159th) at Lake Travis two weeks later.
Basically, in Watson’s mind, February 2017 never happened.
While he dug himself a massive hole in the AOY standings – he ultimately finished 89th after logging three top-30 finishes – his berth in the Cup was already secure thanks to his victory at the Lake Norris FLW Tour Invitational last fall. Having a spot at Lake Murray locked up caused him to approach the season a little differently, he said.
James Watson tends to thrive on lakes where 12 to 15 pounds is considered a good day.
“I fished a lot differently knowing I was in the Cup,” he said. “I had some personal issues earlier in the year that are not excuses. They’re just cold, hard facts. If you have issues in your life, it affects your job performance. Those first two tournaments, thank goodness I was Cup qualified, because mentally I wasn’t in them.”
He bounced back with a 27th at the Harris Chain of Lakes, then narrowly missed the top-10 cut at Lake Cumberland, where he wound up 11th. He had another triple-digit dud at Beaver Lake before a 62nd at La Crosse, Wis., and a 26th at the Potomac River.
“I’m due to put two or three days in a row together,” Watson said. “I had the chances for a really spectacular year minus those first two tournaments.”
He could still salvage it all with a big showing at the Cup. He’s vocal about his affinity for fishing during this time of year, when just about everyone else crows about it.
“I have the nothing-to-lose mentality except now we’re fishing the time of year that’s my absolute favorite,” he said. “We don’t get to fish this time of year unless you’re in the Cup or in a special event. When there are tournaments, I feel like I can make paychecks.”
He says that’s because of the way he fishes. He’s not a shallow-water power-fisherman like other competitors pride themselves on being.
“I feel like everybody else and their brother can go catch big bags of pre-spawners where I come in with smaller bags, but from now until December I feel like I can catch more 3-pound average bass than others, which is really good this time of year,” he said. “I’ve always felt that I can compete on lakes where 12 to 15 pounds in multi-day events does a person well.
“I enjoy the spotlight and big tournaments like this. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great show. This will be a fun tournament and I love that we’re only fishing against 52 guys. It’s all about odds.”